The Vapour Trail is kept by Melissa Bellanta, a cultural historian from the University of Queensland, Australia, based at the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies. My interests are in popular theatre and entertainment, raffish girls, flash masculinity, folk music, urban history, labour politics, and Australian identity – especially in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. I’m currently writing a book on the rough hooligan or ‘larrikin’ subculture in Australia during this period, focusing on their interests in boxing, blackface minstrelsy, music-hall songs, burlesque, the Kelly gang, and Australian football.

For a list of Melissa’s publications, see here. You can read one of her articles on larrikins and Australian theatre in Australasian Drama Studies (vol. 52 (April 2008 ) here: the-larrikins-hop.

18 Responses to “About”

  1. L.J. Anderson 2 February 2008 at 9:01 pm #

    Your Jan. 10, 2008 entry on minstrel shows in Australia in the late 19th century mentions they were “about the love of Kentucky, or Dixie” etc. Why on earth would Australians favor shows about Southern U.S. stereotypes? Were there a lot of expat Americans in Australia during that era?

  2. Melissa Bellanta 3 February 2008 at 2:04 am #

    The popularity of the blackface minstrel show in late nineteenth century Australia is in many ways intriguing, if not downright bizarre. There were numerous touring minstrel companies from the US in Australia in the 1870-80s (including Charles B. Hicks’ Afican-American performing troupe, the Georgia Minstrels, at the end of the 1870s). And there were also homegrown minstrel companies, some formed by white Americans (such as Frank Weston and Frank Clark) who made their careers in the Australian colonies. But the main audiences for these shows were white Australians, not Americans – there certainly weren’t enough American expats around to sustain audiences for minstrel shows.

    The only historian to have written at any length about the minstrel show in colonial Australia so far is Richard Waterhouse. (I will be publishing an article on larrikin Austrlaians’ fondness for blackface minstrelsy in future, but that’s still in the works as yet). He talks about the fact that colonial Australians, like Anglo-Americans, were invested in the feelings of white superiority encouraged by the minstrel show. But it wasn’t all about racial stereotypes. The minstrel shows’ mixture of sentimentality and ribald, bathetic humour, and its overlap with English music hall and pantomime entertainments, gave it a cross-cultural appeal.

  3. bennymill 16 May 2008 at 5:38 am #

    There were quite a few Americans around Melbourne during the 1860s for the gold rush, but probably not enough to sustain minstrelsy, as Melissa says.

    It might be worth noting that minstrel songs about Dixie and Kentucky were not so much realistic songs about places in the US; they were metaphors for a distant home (at a time of mass-migration) as well as for an idealised, utopic (for whites at least) past. No doubt audiences in Australia during the C19th experienced feelings of homelessness and nostalgia – both of which minstrel shows tapped into.

  4. Melissa Bellanta 16 May 2008 at 7:01 am #

    I couldn’t agree more, bennymill – in fact, the nostlagic appeal of ‘Old Kentucky’-style songs is very much what I’ll be talking about in a paper I’ve just written for the Australian Historical Association conference in July 2008, drawing on comments to the same effect by American historians such as Alexander Saxton and Eric Lott.

  5. tobyeccles 29 April 2009 at 2:26 am #

    Hi Melissa,
    Long time no see. Good to come across your work on the ether. Excellent research into larrikins.
    I have been looking for songs and poems related to larrikins. Do you have the lyrics for ‘The Larrikin’s Hop’? Have you come across any other songs or poems in your travels?
    Have you heard the fantastic experimental version of ‘The Raspberry Pickers’ Song’ by Percy Nobby Norton? You can listen online.
    Looking forward to seeing future results of your research.

  6. Melissa Bellanta 30 April 2009 at 6:48 am #

    Dear Toby

    Very good to hear from you, and long time no see indeed. I will email you an article on larrikins and blackface minstrelsy which contains the lyrics to ‘The Larrikin’s Hop’. Why are you interested in the songs and poetry? And no, haven’t come across Percy Nobby Norton… should I have??

    – M

  7. Jbprince 28 October 2009 at 5:03 am #

    Melissa, you mention your interest in telepathy and the paranormal, and I wonder if you’ve read books about Edgar Cayce, the USA Virginia Beach psychic.



  8. Paddy Gallagher 26 December 2009 at 4:39 am #

    I am a bit late coming into this discussion but think that some people might be reading too much into the popularity of overseas 19th century songs.
    Australia had a small, scattered population with a limited local entertainment industry and no real outlet for local talent. Overseas artists brought with them both fame and new material. There was no mass-media to hype new songs every year and music that might have been outdated in its original country was still appreciated here.
    The attitude was [and sometimes still is] that Australia produced nothing any good.
    All good things had to be imported.

  9. Kent Blackmore 17 January 2010 at 11:43 am #

    Hi Melissa,
    Just found a reference to your chapter on the Davenport Brothers in “Impact of the Modern”, and will have to get myself a copy. I’m doing some research in the same general area, but related to the death of William H.H. Davenport in July 1877 and some contradictory stories about his burial. Don’t suppose you have any information (esp. primary sources) about the story that his grave/monument was placed outside the boundaries of Rookwood Cemetery? I have several un-referenced comments to that effect, but his actual grave is inside the cemetery and does not have the supposed “engravings of ropes, bells etc”.

  10. Melissa Bellanta 19 January 2010 at 12:38 am #

    Dear Kent. Have definitely heard that story about the ornamentation on Wm Davenport’s grave, but have not come across anything on it in the sources – my research only canvassed the period of their Australian tour in 1876. Sorry I can’t help you – but am v interested in your research. Just had a quick at your site, and will enjoy looking over it a more leisurely way. – Melissa

  11. bob petersen 13 May 2010 at 6:24 pm #

    Dear Melissa,
    Larry Foley needs a completely new (and professional) biography. When I was doing my book on Peter Jackson I was obliged to rubbish the existing one. It does not even deal with the pathetically few fights in which Larry defended his 1879 title.

    bob petersen

    • Melissa Bellanta 14 May 2010 at 11:10 am #

      Bob: Glad you think so! I have not done any great amount of research on Larry Foley because I am interested more generally in the larrikin subculture of the period rather than in him specifically – but I am amazed at how little has been written about him, and how much of what little there is relies uncritically on Roberts’ biography. Are you considering the task?

    • Melissa Bellanta 14 May 2010 at 11:14 am #

      PS I am going to get out a copy of Gentleman Bruiser today and get reading.

  12. Allister Hardiman 2 December 2011 at 6:32 pm #

    Hi Melissa. I just left a note on the page where above you have images of my favourite burlesqueuses, the Zavistowski Sisters. And you’re here in Oz no less. I’m down South in Melbourne.

  13. David Schaal 29 January 2014 at 5:04 pm #

    Hello Melissa,

    I have just purchased your book on Larrikins and am very interested in the history of Biloela – the Industrial and Reformatory schools on Cockatoo Island. My wife and I recently visited Cocktaoo Island and were very taken by the plight of the girls in these institutions. I understand that for your research, you managed to attain the report by the Royal Commision into public charities, 1873-74, and within that report there were statements taken by the girls. I live in London, England and have only just discovered, upon my return home, the existence of this documentation. Is there any way you know that we could obtain this information in the UK? Are you able to recommend any people we could contact (email or otherwise) in order to further our interest?

    All the very best,

    David Schaal

    • Melissa Bellanta 6 February 2014 at 4:49 am #

      Dear David

      I also only visited Cockatoo Island for the first time only recently: it was a powerful visit.

      I can’t give you advice about the availability of the report in Britain, I am afraid, but it would be worth looking at the British Library catalogue and sending their collections staff an email about whether they hold New South Wales parliamentary reports from the 1870s.

      You could otherwise send an email to the ‘Ask a Librarian’ service at the State Library of NSW and ask about gaining a photocopy of the report. It is a hefty document, however – maybe up to 200 pages, from memory, although maybe less, and full of a whole lot of other evidence besides that of the Biloela Industrial School girls and staff.

      Warm regards

  14. harllyn 5 March 2014 at 6:14 pm #

    I have only just discovered your blog while googling Harry Cardella. He is my husbands’ maternal grandfather and we have a great knowledge of the family history.
    I can’t understand why you have the comment (abducted?) by Fitzgerald’s Circus. The father of this young boy, eight years old at the time, was in a situation that his wife Emily had died from a self-administered dose of Strycnine poison in a drunken rage only months before. Harry had two older sisters and a brother. The two girls were already ‘in service’ in the homes of local station owners in the Eulo/Cunnamulla region and he was a travelling stockmen with a ten and eight year old boys. From our research on the subject it would be more likely that Harry & John had been “given away”. This had been the case in another family on our family tree. We have only just traced the movements of the brother, who we located records of, in Bethungra NSW. His next of kin was AE Orchard which was also a name around Cunnamulla at that time.
    The other point was “the Fitzgeralds gave him the name Cardella and assigned him a Spanish identity, presumably to make him more palatable to white audiences than an Aboriginal performer.” This statement is flawed. In Rangoon, Burma while Harry was performing overseas he married an Australian woman, a fellow performer, juggler, dancer, acrobat Sarah Hannah Maude Burrell with English roots going back centuries. Her circus name was Sybil Baroni!
    On speaking to Mark St Leon, (who incidentally we have found is related to Sarah’s children by an earlier relationship) circus people usually ‘adopted’ a name of a former performer. Harry also performed under the name of Dundy.
    Harry knew his family and was in contact with at least one of his sisters after returning to Australia when WW1 broke out in Europe. My mother-in-law related to me a story of the visit of his sister when she was a young child and we have photographs of Harry & Sarah’s visit to their place is the country.
    Both Harry & his brother John from newspaper reports and family lore were respected members of society and held in high esteem by all that knew them.
    This is the legacy that my husband wants to acknowledge and not the controversial anti white sentiment that seems to be preferred.

    • Melissa Bellanta 7 March 2014 at 7:45 am #

      Thanks so much for this inside story, harilyn. An amazing life – and you are right, it gives a very different spin on the accepted story.

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